Moderator (M): Today’s briefing will be on background, attribution to a senior department official or State Department official. And he is going to start with remarks and then will take a few of your questions.
Senior State Department Official (SSDO): So on Libya, U.S. Government is immersed in efforts to support an immediate end to Libya’s ongoing conflict and minimize toxic foreign interference, with the goal of fostering a stable, unified, and democratic Libyan state that can partner with the U.S. to defeat terrorism and stabilize energy production.
We meet regularly with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, General Khalifa Haftar, and other Libyan leaders as part of our effort to de-escalate the fighting and demonstrate that the underlying drivers of the conflict can be addressed through political negotiations.
This risks becoming a proxy war. The Libyan civil conflict, reignited in April 2019 when Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army launched a military offensive to seize Tripoli from the Government of National Accord, which was established by the 2015 Libya political agreement and is led by Prime Minister al-Sarraj.
Ten months of inconclusive fighting with frontlines roughly 10 miles outside central Tripoli that have remained largely unchanged since April 5th last year have amply demonstrated that there is no military solution to the conflict, short of a bloodbath or a long-term insurgency.
Both the LNA and the GNA have sought military and financial support from outside backers, transforming the Tripoli conflict into a regional proxy war over political and economic clout in the broader Middle East. All sides seek to leverage these considerable investments to advance their security and commercial interests.
Our embassy is supporting efforts by the UN Special Representative Ghassan Salame to negotiate a cessation of hostilities and a comprehensive political settlement.
We coordinate closely with the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Egypt, UAE, and Turkey. On January 19th, the UN and the German Government convened the long-anticipated Berlin conference, in which all key foreign players in the Libya conflict committed to suspend military operations and halt the influx of foreign weapons and fighters.
We support UNSMIL as the mediator able to move this process forward. That’s the external track.
UNSMIL, the UN mission, is also focusing on an internal track with a series of intra-Libyan dialogues which seek to address difficult issues, including the role played by militia groups throughout the country, the reunification of Libya’s economic institutions, and disagreement about which political groups should be represented in a future Libyan government.
The UN convened in Geneva just Wednesday of this week Libya’s first political dialogue since the LNA’s military offensive on Tripoli last April with the goal of bringing together members from the eastern House of Representatives, the so-called High State Council, and broader Libyan civil society.
Unfortunately, some invited participants are attempting to veto that process in a self-serving bid to prolong the unsustainable status quo.
The UN has also succeeded in facilitating parallel economic talks in Tunis on January 6th, Cairo February 9th to 10th, with the goal of spurring Libyan factions to bolster economic transparency and promote the equitable distribution of oil revenues.
Earlier this month, the GNA and the LNA each sent five representatives to the February 4 to 9 UN-led security discussions in Geneva, the so-called 5+5 dialogue, on the modalities of ceasefire and the terms of the withdrawal of foreign forces and mercenaries.
We can talk a little bit about the humanitarian situation. Obviously, this conflict has had a humanitarian impact. But maybe the three messages I’d like to highlight today are:
1- First of all, that the LNA offensive should be suspended immediately so that political negotiations can succeed. As I said, this has the risk of becoming a large-scale proxy war involving Turkey, Russia, the UAE, and Egypt.
It’s clear that in asking the LNA to suspend its offensive we’re not – that there is a role for Haftar in shaping Libya’s political future.
Nobody is saying there isn’t; nobody is asking him to surrender. But we think that the way he is going to advance the goals he’s talking about are best – is best done at the negotiating table.
And of course, this is just the first step in de-escalating the overall conflict. But it’s got to begin with suspending the current offensive.
2- The second point is we support the UN role in convening the negotiations that have taken place between both sides on the military, economic, and political issues. Ghassan Salame we think is doing an excellent job, and we call on all parties to support his efforts.
3- The third thing is we’re determined to reopen our embassy in Tripoli as soon as humanly possible. That is not going to be an immediate prospect because of security conditions. Our property was looted. We have a long way to go. It’s going to begin with baby steps, with day trips, then with longer overnights, and then ultimately trying to get some physical facilities on the ground.
I got to post last August and only made my first trip to Libya two weeks ago. I got to Benghazi, which is in a more stable part of the country. I met with Haftar there. I have met with Sarraj multiple times, but it’s hard to do it inside the – I can’t get into Tripoli just yet.
Obviously, the legacy of what happened in Benghazi in 2012 very much colors the concern, the considerations that go into sending any Americans back into Libya, so that there’s a regimented clearance process for that kind of travel. But again, I am able to meet with leaders from all sides, if not in Libya then in the neighborhood.
So with that, I’m happy to take some questions.
Q: Thanks. Katrina Manson from Financial Times. Given your call for Haftar to stop, can you tell us a little bit about the support that UAE and others have been providing to him and the kind of pressure you’re putting on them to stop their support and encourage him to cease his operations, too?
SSDO: We have spoken to all of the parties that are involved in supplying all sides of this conflict. The approach we’re taking is to try to essentially get across the idea it’s not in anyone’s interest for you to fuel this conflict; it’s only going to escalate, as we’ve seen it doing, into a regional proxy war.
Obviously, some of these countries are countries with which the U.S. has multiple equities and deep and complex relationships. I – so Libya is not the defining issue in those relationships necessarily, but they have heard our message.
The conflict – to the extent the conflict is fueled in part by outside actors, they have deep and deeply felt concerns of their own about the role of political Islam, about the stability of their regimes, about regional influence. And we can share our views, but we can’t necessarily force them to alter their behavior.
Our main point is you’ve all signed up to obligations under the UN, and the UN has passed the resolutions calling on everybody to observe an arms embargo. You should observe it. And that applies to the UAE; it applies to Turkey; it applies to Russia and a few others.
Q: Hi. Are you doing anything to get the oil blockade lifted? A couple of days ago, the eastern side said they can’t force an end to it because it was a popular decision. You’re doing a bunch of things with them. You’re talking to them. But are you doing anything specifically with regards to the oil?
SSDO: I mean, we have called for an end to the oil blockade. We have spoken with the various parties about the importance of ending this blockade as quickly as possible. We’re not really convinced this is the result of a popular or tribal dissatisfaction. I think this has been – whatever concerns there were originally that at a local level we think have been manipulated with the intention of using oil as a political tool.
That’s obviously not in Libya’s interests. The result now is that Libya’s oil revenues have almost entirely been shut off. The country is having to live off its reserves, which are not insubstantial, but this is not a way to manage the country. And it is already having a humanitarian impact, and we believe that this should stop soon.
We met with Mr. Mustafa Sanalla, the head of the National Oil Corporation, last week before I came back. He’s working on this issue. He’ll be at what’s called CERAWeek in Houston in March. We’re trying to use that as a platform also to send the signal that this oil blockade needs to stop.
Q: I was wondering what you – what your assessment or what’s the U.S. assessment of what it would really take for General Haftar to stand down in the offensive against Tripoli. And short of calling for it to end, is the United States doing anything to make that happen other than calling for an end to it?
SSDO: Time will tell. I’m going to leave it at that.
Q: Well, the first one is what would it take for him? What’s he looking for? What would it take for him to stand down?
SSDO: I mean, you’d have to ask him. He is – I think everybody’s who’s dealt with him has come away understanding that this is a person with a very fixed view of things. But if he really does have his country’s best interests at heart, if he really is determined, which he says he is, to go after what we call the three Ms – the militias, the money, and the Muslim Brotherhood – what he is doing now is directly counterproductive to those goals.
He is – his offensive is empowering militias in Tripoli. It’s empowering extremists. It’s making it impossible to track how the money’s being distributed across the country. So if he’s really interested in doing the best thing for Libya, and I will take him at his word that he is, then the thing to do right now would be to suspend his activities – again, we’re not calling on him to surrender – suspend the offensive and give the negotiating process a chance.
Q: Sir, you mentioned the toxic role that outside players have had in Libya. And can you please explain: What specifically is Turkey doing? Its Turkish military personnel plus Turkish-backed Syrian fighters seem to have been imported there in the thousands.
What, specifically, is the Russians doing with the Wagner Group? What is the UAE doing? Can you give us some information as to what these specific outside forces are doing in the conflict in numbers and weapons systems they’re bringing in?
And his – just to clarify maybe your answer to a previous question, has any of this slowed down or abated, or is it just ongoing despite calls for them to observe an —
SSDO: Well, in answer to the last part, I think I’d say things do wax and wane a little bit, but that kind of relates to how I would answer your question overall. There was a sequence to this. It kind of began on one side. And as that side ramped up, and as they supported Haftar and as his offensive became more and more threatening to the government in Tripoli, that government went out and asked for help.
They went to the Turks and they said, we need you. And the Turks said okay. And they had their reasons. There was the maritime agreement that was signed on maritime economic zones and possible oil exploration that was, I think, the price the Turks asked for. But they made a commitment to then support the government in Tripoli, which has actually, or at least until a couple weeks ago, stabilized the situation and was probably responsible for the parties deciding to take part in these 5+5 talks in Geneva.
When folks look eyeball to eyeball and say do we really want this to escalate? Maybe not. I think the Emiratis at that point told Haftar you should go to Geneva. The Turks encouraged the GNA to do that. But where it goes from here is an open question.
The thing with Turkey is complicated by what’s going on in Idlib now. The Russians have got the Turks in a very difficult situation. And there’s an interplay between what’s going on in Idlib and what’s going on in Tripoli that I don’t think anyone has completely figured out yet.
The Russian presence, of course, the thousands of Wagner mercenaries is immensely destabilizing. And that was kind of the big game changer back in the fall when that – when people woke up and realized this presence was there in support of Haftar. And it became clear that not just regional, but even U.S. interests were also at stake here, because it’s clear the Russians see strategic advantage now in Libya – low risk and high gain.
And so where this goes from here will be a factor of whether ultimately these – what’s now a proxy war involving proxies, whether this actually becomes a conflict between – it’s not hard to imagine the Turks shooting – killing Russians in Tripoli, or the Turks shooting down an Emirati plane, or an – or the – there could easily be something that now raises this to international conflict levels.
And our view is that, and our belief is that none of these parties wants things to reach that level.
Q: And who are the Syrian – the Turkish-backed Syrian fighters that are going there? And what about the Emiratis, what are they doing?
SSDO: My – I mean, there have been varying degrees of sophisticated weaponry introduced by various sides. I’m not an expert on all that. My impression is the Emiratis have pulled back a little bit in recent days or weeks.
The interesting thing in a way is that each side has got its mercenaries. Haftar’s got the Wagner folks. And for some reason, Erdogan decided to send these Free Syrian Army fighters from Idlib. I don’t pretend to understand why he started with them.
There are regular Turkish forces also in Tripoli, and a really good point of departure, if we could first consolidate the ceasefire, would then be to start getting the mercenaries out.
Q: What is the U.S. prepared to do in terms of using its leverage or influence, diplomatic or military power, to change the situation? Because the way you’re describing it, it does sound almost like you’re a spectator on the sides, and these – part of Russia’s seizing the initiative, Turkey is taking action. Is Libya a place where the U.S. will just have to watch these – this proxy war play out?
SSDO: I mean, I think my answer to that would be it’s interesting to see how all of the parties, both in Libya and among the Europeans, believe that the United States influence can play a pivotal role in bringing this to a resolution, and not through military force.
I think it’s because so many of these parties have specific vested interests, and nobody – there are very few parties who sort of stand back and look at this from a kind of distant, more objective perspective. I think one reason the Germans were brought into this was because some people thought Merkel was kind of removed from the fray in all this, and it would be a nice way for her to begin to leave her term in office, by bringing Europeans together on an important issue. And the Germans have played an important role here.
I don’t think anybody expects the U.S. to solve this thing, or if they do – I mean, I should rephrase that. Some people think the U.S. can just snap its fingers and solve this thing. Folks in Libya. That’s not the case. Our role, I think, is to help mobilize and galvanize international support for a solution both internally and externally.
Q: How concerned are you about the terrorist threat given what’s going on on the ground?
SSDO: This is very much one of the downsides of this conflict. It’s taken – people’s eyes has been taken off the ball of the ability of terrorist groups to consolidate themselves. We saw them start to reform last year.
AFRICOM conducted some strikes. Some of these were effective. And our sense is the threat has abated to an extent in terms of an organized threat, but Libya – especially if you look down in the south – is such a free for all that it’s – we’re already getting indications this is an environment that’s ripe for terrorist groups to reform themselves.
And we want – one of the reasons this conflict needs to end as quickly as possible is so that you can have a stable, effective government in Tripoli that can be an effective partner in dealing with this threat.
Q: Just can you expand a little bit more on how the Idlib situation is playing out here? Because it is reaching kind of a climax there.
SSDO: I mean, you really need to talk to Ambassador Satterfield. I did go to Ankara about three weeks ago, and he and I made the rounds and talked to the Turks and talked about how their presence was an important factor in Tripoli, and it’s important to calibrate this presence correctly. And ultimately, of course, we want all foreign countries to get their troops out of Libya. The Idlib thing was starting to come to a crescendo then. There have just been some Turkish troops killed.
I mean, all I can say – my sense is that Syria, northern Syria is a huge priority for the Turks, also for the Russians, probably more important than Libya. But now the Libyan factor has complicated the equation for all concerned.
And one thing you can be sure of is Moscow will figure out how to use this to maximum leverage, maximum advantage, as they pursue their interests in that particular region, both in consolidating Assad’s regime and in trying to gain a foothold in the Southern Med.
Q: And what did your contacts with the Russians – you said you went to Ankara, but have you been talking to the Russians?
SSSDO: Well, I’ve had a couple of bilaterals with Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, on the margins of these meetings in Berlin. Our ambassador in Moscow, Ambassador Sullivan, has met with Bogdanov. So we’ve begun to kind of trade views, but we don’t have an established bilateral pattern yet.